Bullets & Billets Part 11

"This place I'm in is a pretty good place for a sniper to hitch up," I thought to myself. "Can see everything there is to be seen from here."

After a short stocktaking of the whole scene, I turned and wallowed my way back to the farm. Some few days later they did make a sniper's post of that spot, and a captain friend of mine, with whom I spent many quaint and dismal nights in St. Yvon, occupied it. He was the "star"

shot of the battalion, an expert sniper, and, I believe, made quite a good bag.



Our farm was one of a cluster of three or four, each approximately a couple of hundred yards apart. It was perhaps the largest and the most preserved of the lot. It was just the same sort of shape as all Flemish farms--a long building running round three sides of the yard, in the middle of which there was an oblong tank, used for collecting all the rubbish and drainage.

The only difference about our farm was, we had a moat. Very superior to all the cluster in consequence. Sometime or other the moat must have been very effective; but when I was there, only about a quarter of it contained water. The other three-quarters was a sort of bog, or marsh, its surface broken up by large shell holes. On the driest part of this I discovered a row of graves, their rough crosses all battered and bent down. I just managed to discern the names inscribed; they were all French. Names of former heroes who had participated in some action or other months before. Going out into the fields behind the farm, I found more French graves, enclosed in a rectangular graveyard that had been roughly made with barbed wire and posts, each grave surmounted with the dead soldier's hat. Months of rough wintry weather had beaten down the faded cloth cap into the clay mound, and had started the obliteration of the lettering on the cross. A few more months; and cross, mound and hat will all have merged back into the fields of Flanders.

Beyond these fields, about half a mile distant, lay Wulverghem. Looking at what you can see of this village from the Douve farm, it looks exceedingly pretty and attractive. A splendid old church tower could be seen between the trees, and round about it were clustered the red roofs of a fair-sized village. It has, to my mind, a very nice situation. In the days before the war it must have been a pleasing place to live in. I went to have a look at it one day. It's about as fine a sample of what these Prussians have brought upon Belgian villages as any I have seen.

The village street is one long ruin. On either side of the road, all the houses are merely a collection of broken tiles and shattered bricks and framework. Huge shell holes punctuate the street. I had seen a good many mutilated villages before this, but I remember thinking this was as bad, if not worse, than any I had yet seen. I determined to explore some of the houses and the church.

I went into one house opposite the church. It had been quite a nice house once, containing about ten rooms. It was full of all sorts of things. The evacuation had evidently been hurried. I went into the front right-hand room first, and soon discovered by the books and pictures that this had been the Cure's house. It was in a terrible state.

Religious books in French and Latin lay about the floor in a vast disorder, some with the cover and half the book torn off by the effect of an explosion. Pictures illustrating Bible scenes, images, and other probably cherished objects, smashed and ruined, hung about the walls, or fragmentary portions of them lay littered about on the floor.

A shell hole of large proportions had rent a gash in the outer front wall, leaving the window woodwork, bricks and wall-paper piled up in a heap on the floor, partially obliterating a large writing desk. Private papers lay about in profusion, all dirty, damp and muddy. The remains of a window blind and half its roller hung in the space left by the absent window, and mournfully tapped against the remnant of the framework in the light, cold breeze that was blowing in from outside. Place this scene in your imagination in some luxuriant country vicarage in England, and you will get an idea of what Belgium has had to put up with from these Teutonic madmen. I went into all the rooms; they were in very much the same state. In the back part of the house the litter was added to by empty tins and old military equipment. Soldiers had evidently had to live there temporarily on their way to some part of our lines. I heard a movement in the room opposite the one I had first gone into; I went back and saw a cat sitting in the corner amongst a pile of leather-backed books. I made a movement towards it, but with a cadaverous, wild glare at me, it sprang through the broken window and disappeared.

The church was just opposite the priest's house. I went across the road to look at it. It was a large reddish-grey stone building, pretty old, I should say, and surrounded by a graveyard. Shell holes everywhere; the old, grey grave stones and slabs cracked and sticking about at odd angles. As I entered by the vestry door I noticed the tower was fairly all right, but that was about the only part that was. Belgium and Northern France are full of churches which have been sadly knocked about, and all present very much the same appearance. I will describe this one to give you a sample. I went through the vestry into the main part of the church, deciding to examine the vestry later. The roof had had most of the tiles blown off, and underneath them the roofing-boards had been shattered into long narrow strips. Fixed at one end to what was left of the rafters they flapped slowly up and down in the air like lengths of watch-spring. Below, on the floor of the church, the chairs were tossed about in the greatest possible disorder, and here and there a dozen or so had been pulverized by the fall of an immense block of masonry. Highly coloured images were lying about, broken and twisted.

The altar candelabra and stained-glass windows lay in a heap together behind a pulpit, the front of which had been knocked off by a falling pillar. One could walk about near some of the broken images, and pick up little candles and trinkets which had been put in and around the shrine, off the floor and from among the mass of broken stones and mortar. The vestry, I found, was almost complete. Nearly trodden out of recognition on the floor, I found a bright coloured hand-made altar cloth, which I then had half a mind to take away with me, and post it back to some parson in England to put in his church. I only refrained from carrying out this plan as I feared that the difficulties of getting it away would be too great. I left the church, and looked about some of the other houses, but none proved as pathetically interesting as the church and the vicar's house, so I took my way out across the fields again towards the Douve farm.

Not a soul about anywhere. Wulverghem lay there, empty, wrecked and deserted. I walked along the river bank for a bit, and had got about two hundred yards from the farm when the quiet morning was interrupted in the usual way, by shelling. Deep-toned, earth-shaking crashes broke into the quiet peaceful air. "Just in the same place," I observed to myself as I walked along behind our left-hand trenches. I could see the cloud of black smoke after each one landed, and knew exactly where they were.

"Just in the same old--hullo! hullo!" With that rotating, gurgling whistle a big one had just sailed over and landed about fifty yards from our farm! I nipped in across the moat, through the courtyard, and explained to the others where it had landed. We all remained silent, waiting for the next. Here it came, gurgling along through the air; a pause, then "Crumph!"--nearly in the same place again, but, if anything, nearer the next farm. The Colonel moved to the window and looked out.

"They're after that farm," he said, as he turned away slowly and struck a match by the fireplace to light his pipe with. About half a dozen shells whizzed along in close succession, and about four hit and went into the roof of the next farm.

Presently I looked out of the window again, and saw a lot of our men moving out of the farm and across the road into the field beyond. There was a reserve trench here, so they went into it. I looked again, and soon saw the reason. Dense columns of smoke were coming out of the straw roof, and soon the whole place was a blazing ruin. Nobody in the least perturbed; we all turned away from the window and wondered how soon they'd "have our farm."



[Illustration: T]

They seemed to me long, dark, dismal days, those days spent in the Douve trenches; longer, darker and more dismal than the Plugstreet ones. Night after night I crossed the dreary mud flat, passed the same old wretched farms, and went on with the same old trench routine. We all considered the trenches a pretty rotten outfit; but every one was fully prepared to accept far rottener things than that. There was never the least sign of flagging determination in any man there, and I am sure you could say the same of the whole front.

And, really, some jobs on some nights wanted a lot of beating for undesirability. Take the ration party's job, for instance. Think of the rottenest, wettest, windiest winter's night you can remember, and add to it this bleak, muddy, war-worn plain with its ruined farms and shell-torn lonely road. Then think of men, leaving the trenches at dusk, going back about a mile and a half, and bringing sundry large and heavy boxes up to the trenches, pausing now and again for a rest, and ignoring the intermittent crackling of rifle fire in the darkness, and the sharp "_phit_" of bullets hitting the mud all around. Think of that as your portion each night and every night. When you have finished this job, the rest you get consists of coiling yourself up in a damp dug-out. Night after night, week after week, month after month, this job is done by thousands. As one sits in a brilliantly illuminated, comfortable, warm theatre, having just come from a cosy and luxurious restaurant, just think of some poor devil half-way along those corduroy boards struggling with a crate of biscuits; the ration "dump" behind, the trenches on in front. When he has finished he will step down into the muddy slush of a trench, and take his place with the rest, who, if need be, will go on doing that job for another ten years, without thinking of an alternative. The Germans made a vast mistake when they thought they had gauged the English temperament.

We went "in" and "out" of those trenches many times. During these intervals of "out" I began to draw pictures more and more. It had become known that I drew these trench pictures, not only in our battalion but in several others, and at various headquarters I got requests for four or five drawings at a time. About three weeks after I returned from leave, I had to move my billeting quarters. I went to a farm called "La petite Monque"; I don't know how it's really spelt, but that's what the name sounded like. Here I lived with the officers of A Company, and a jolly pleasant crew they were. We shared a mess together, and had one big room and one small room between us. There were six of us altogether.

The Captain had the little room and the bed in it, whilst we all slept round the table on the floor in the big room. Here, in the daytime, when I was not out with the machine-gun sections, I drew several pictures.

The Brigadier-General of our brigade took a particular fancy to one which he got from me. The divisional headquarters had half a dozen; whilst I did two sets of four each for two officers in the regiment.

Sometimes we would go for walks around the country, and occasionally made an excursion as far as Bailleul, about five miles away. Bailleul held one special attraction for us. There were some wonderfully good baths there. The fact that they were situated in the lunatic asylum rather added to their interest.

The first time I went there, one of the subalterns in A Company was my companion. We didn't particularly want to walk all the way, so we decided to get down to the high road as soon as we could, and try and get a lift in a car. With great luck we managed to stop a fairly empty car, and got a lift. It was occupied by a couple of French soldiers who willingly rolled us along into Bailleul. Once there, we walked through the town and out to the asylum close by. I expect by now the lunatics have been called up under the group system; but in those days they were there, and pulled faces at us as we walked up the wide gravel drive to the grand portals of the building. They do make nice asylums over there.

This was a sort of Chatsworth or Blenheim to look at. Inside it was fitted up in very great style: long carpeted corridors opening out into sort of domed winter gardens, something like the snake house at the Zoo.

We came at length to a particularly lofty, domed hall, from which opened several large bathrooms. Splendid places. A row of large white enamelled baths along one wall, cork mats on the floor, and one enormous central water supply, hot and cold, which you diverted to whichever bath you chose by means of a long flexible rubber pipe. Soap, sponges, towels, _ad lib_. You can imagine what this palatial water grotto meant to us, when, at other times, our best bath was of saucepan capacity, taken on the cold stone floor of a farm room. We lay and boiled the trenches out of our systems in that palatial asylum. Glorious! lying back in a long white enamel bath in a warm foggy atmosphere of steam, watching one's toes floating in front. When this was over, and we had been grimaced off the premises by "inmates" at the windows, we went back into Bailleul and made for the "Faucon d'Or," an old hotel that stands in the square.

Here we had a civilized meal. Tablecloth, knives, forks, spoons, waited on, all that sort of thing. You could have quite a good dinner here if you liked. A curious thought occurred to me then, and as it occurs again to me now I write it down. Here it is: If the authorities gave one permission, one could have rooms at the Faucon d'Or and go to the war daily. It would be quite possible to, say, have an early dinner, table d'hote (with, say, a half-bottle of Salmon and Gluckstein), get into one's car and go to the trenches, spend the night sitting in a small damp hole in the ground, or glaring over the parapet, and after "stand to" in the morning, go back in the car in time for breakfast. Of course, if there was an attack, the car would have to wait--that's all; and of course you would come to an understanding with the hotel management that the terms were for meals taken in the hotel, and that if you had to remain in the trenches the terms must be reduced accordingly.

[Illustration: I hear you callin' me]

A curious war this; you _can_ be at a table d'hote dinner, a music-hall entertainment afterwards, and within half an hour be enveloped in the most uncomfortable, soul-destroying trench ever known. I said you can be; I wish I could say you always are.

The last time I was at Bailleul, not many months ago, I heard that we could no longer have baths at the asylum; I don't know why. I think some one told me why, but I can't remember. Whether it was the baths had been shelled, or whether the lunatics objected, it is impossible for me to say; but there's the fact, anyway. "Na Pu" baths at Bailleul.



The Douve trenches claimed our battalion for a long time. We went in and out with monotonous regularity, and I went on with my usual work with machine guns. The whole place became more and more depressing to me, and yet, somehow, I have got more ideas for my pictures from this part of the line than any other since or before. One's mental outlook, I find, varies very much from day to day. Some days there were on which I felt quite merry and bright, and strode along on my nightly rambles, calmly ignoring bullets as they whisked about. At other times I felt thoroughly depressed and weary. As time wore on at the Douve, I felt myself getting into a state when it took more and more out of me to keep up my vigour, and suppress my imagination. There were times when I experienced an almost irresistible desire to lie down and sleep during some of my night walks. I would feel an overwhelming desire to ignore the rain and mud, and just coil up in a farm amongst the empty tins and rubbish and sleep, sleep, sleep. I looked forward to sleep to drown out the worries of the daily and nightly life. In fact, I was slowly getting ill, I suppose.

The actual rough and ready life didn't trouble me at all. I was bothered with the _idea_ of the whole thing. The unnatural atmosphere of things that one likes and looks upon as pleasing, peaceful objects in ordinary times, seemed now to obsess me. It's hard to describe; but the following gives a faint idea of my feelings at this time. Instead of deriving a sense of peace and serenity from picturesque country farms, old trees, setting suns, and singing birds, here was this wretched war business hashing up the whole thing. A farm was a place where you expected a shell through the wall any minute; a tree was the sort of thing the gunners took to range on; a sunset indicated a quantity of light in which it was unsafe to walk abroad. Birds singing were a mockery. All this sort of thing bothered me, and was slowly reducing my physical capacity to "stick it out." But I determined I would stick to the ship, and so I did. The periodical going out to billets and making merry there was a thing to look forward to. Every one comes up in a rebound of spirits on these occasions. In the evenings there, sitting round the table, writing letters, talking, and occasionally having other members of the regiment in to a meal or a call of some sort, made things quite pleasant. There was always the post to look forward to. Quite a thrill went round the room when the door opened and a sergeant came in with an armful of letters and parcels.

Yet during all this latter time at the Douve I longed for a change in trench life. Some activity, some march to somewhere or other; anything to smash up the everlasting stagnant appearance of life there. Suddenly the change came. We were told we had to go out a day before one of our usual sessions in the trenches was ended. We were all immensely pleased.

We didn't know where we were bound for, but, anyway, we were going. This news revived me enormously, and everything looked brighter. The departure-night came, and company by company we handed over to a battalion that had come to relieve us, and collected on the road leading back to Neuve Eglise. I handed over all my gun emplacements to the incoming machine-gun officer, and finally collected my various sections with all their tackle on the road as well. We merely marched back to our usual billets that night, but next morning had orders to get all our baggage ready for the transport wagons. We didn't know where we were going, but at about eleven o'clock in the morning we started off on the march, and soon realized that our direction was Bailleul.

On a fine, clear, warm spring day we marched along, all in the best of spirits, songs of all sorts being sung one after the other. As I marched along in the rear of the battalion, at the head of my machine-gun section, I selected items from their repertoire and had them sung "by request." I had some astonishingly fine mouth-organists in my section.

When we had "In the trail of the Lonesome Pine" sung by half the section, with mouth-organ accompaniment by the other half, the effect was enormous. We passed several battalions of my regiment on the road, evidently bound for the Armentieres direction. Shouts, jokes and much mirth showed the kindred spirits of the passing columns. All battalions of the same regiment, all more or less recruited in the same counties.

When we reached Bailleul we halted in the Square, and then I learnt we were to be billeted there. There was apparently some difficulty in getting billets, and so I was faced with the necessity of finding some for my section myself. The transport officer was in the same fix; he wanted a large and commodious farm whenever he hitched up countless as he had a crowd of horses, wagons and men to put up somehow. He and I decided to start out and look for billets on our own.

I found a temporary rest for my section in an old brickyard on the outskirts of the town, and the transport officer and I started out to look for a good farm which we could appropriate.

Bailleul stands on a bit of a hill, so you can get a wide and extensive view of the country from there. We could see several farms perched about in the country. We fixed on the nearest, and walked out to it. No luck; they were willing to have us, but it wasn't big enough. We tried another; same result. I then suggested we should separate, and each try different roads, and thus we should get one quicker. This we did, I going off up a long straight road, and finally coming to a most promising looking edifice on one side--a real large size in farms.

I went into the yard and walked across the dirty cobbles to the front door. The people were most pleasant. I didn't understand a word they said; but when a person pushes a flagon of beer into one of your hands and an apple into the other, one concludes he means to be pleasant, anyway.

I mumbled a lot of jargon to them for some time, and I really believe they saw that I wanted to use their place for a billet. The owner, a man of about forty-five, then started a long and hardy discussion right at me. He put on a serious face at intervals, so I guessed there was something rather important he was trying to convey to me. I was saved from giving my answer by catching sight of my pal, the transport officer, crossing the yard. He came in. "I've brought Jean along to talk," he announced. (Jean was our own battalion interpreter.) "I can't find a place; but this looks all right." Jean and the owner at once dived off into a labyrinth of unintelligible words, from which they emerged five minutes later. We sat around and listened. Jean turned to us and remarked: "They have got fever here, he says, what you call the spotted fever--how you say, spotted fever?--and this farm is out of bounds."

"Oh! spotted fever! I see!" we both said, and slid away out of that farm pretty quick. So that was what that farmer was trying to say to me: spotted fever!

I went down the road wondering whether cerebral meningitis germs preferred apples or beer, or perhaps they liked both; awful thought!

We went back to our original selection and decided to somehow or other squeeze into the farm which we thought too small. Many hours later we got the transport and the machine-gun section fixed up. We spent two nights there. On the second day I went up into Bailleul. Walking along in the Square, looking at the shops and market stalls, I ran into the brigade machine-gun officer.

"Topping about our brigade, isn't it?" he said.

Chapter end

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